First humans arrived in Britain 250,000 years earlier than thought

Archaeologists digging on a Norfolk beach found stone tools that show the first humans were living in Britain much earlier than previously thought

Ian Sample, science correspondent


Wednesday 7 July 2010 18.04 BST


A spectacular haul of ancient flint tools has been recovered from a beach in Norfolk, pushing back the date of the first known human occupation of Britain by up to 250,000 years.


While digging along the north-east coast of East Anglia near the village of Happisburgh, archaeologists discovered 78 pieces of razor-sharp flint shaped into primitive cutting and piercing tools.


The stone tools were unearthed from sediments that are thought to have been laid down either 840,000 or 950,000 years ago, making them the oldest human artefacts ever found in Britain.


The flints were probably left by hunter-gatherers of the human species Homo antecessor who eked out a living on the flood plains and marshes that bordered an ancient course of the river Thames that has long since dried up. The flints were then washed downriver and came to rest at the Happisburgh site.


The early Britons would have lived alongside sabre-toothed cats and hyenas, primitive horses, red deer and southern mammoths in a climate similar to that of southern Britain today, though winters were typically a few degrees colder.


"These tools from Happisburgh are absolutely mint-fresh. They are exceptionally sharp, which suggests they have not moved far from where they were dropped," said Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London. The population of Britain at the time most likely numbered in the hundreds or a few thousand at most.


"These people probably used the rivers as routes into the landscape. A lot of Britain might have been heavily forested at the time, which would have posed a major problem for humans without strong axes to chop trees down," Stringer added. "They lived out in the open, but we don't know if they had basic clothing, were building primitive shelters, or even had the use of fire."


The discovery, reported in the journal Nature, overturns the long-held belief that early humans steered clear of chilly Britain – and the rest of northern Europe – in favour of the more hospitable climate of the Mediterranean. The only human species known to be living in Europe at the time is Homo antecessor, or "pioneer man", whose remains were discovered in the Atapuerca hills of Spain in 2008 and have been dated to between 1.1m and 1.2m years old.


The early settlers would have walked into Britain across an ancient land bridge that once divided the North Sea from the Atlantic and connected the country to what is now mainland Europe. The first humans probably arrived during a warm interglacial period, but may have retreated as temperatures plummeted in subsequent ice ages.


Until now, the earliest evidence of humans in Britain came from Pakefield, near Lowestoft in Suffolk, where a set of stone tools dated to 700,000 years ago were uncovered in 2005. More sophisticated stone, antler and bone tools were found in the 1990s in Boxgrove, Sussex, which are believed to be half a million years old.


"The flint tools from Happisburgh are relatively crude compared with those from Boxgrove, but they are still effective," said Stringer. Early stone tools were fashioned by using a pebble to knock large flakes off a chunk of flint. Later humans used wood and antler hammers to remove much smaller flakes and so make more refined cutting and sawing edges.


The great migration from Africa saw early humans reach Europe around 1.8m years ago. Within 500,000 years, humans had become established in the Mediterranean region. Remains have been found at several archaeological sites in Spain, southern France and Italy.


In an accompanying article in Nature, Andrew Roberts and Rainer Grün at the Australian National University in Canberra, write: "Until the Happisburgh site was found and described, it was thought that these early humans were reluctant to live in the less hospitable climate of northern Europe, which frequently fell into the grip of severe ice ages."


Researchers led by the Natural History Museum and British Museum in London began excavating sites near Happisburgh in 2001 as part of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project and soon discovered tools from the stone age beneath ice-age deposits. So far, though, they have found no remains of the ancient people who made them.


"This would be the 'holy grail' of our work," said Stringer. "The humans who made the Happisburgh tools may well have been related to the people of similar antiquity from Atapuerca in Spain, assigned to the species Homo antecessor, or 'pioneer man'."


The latest haul of stone tools was buried in sediments that record a period of history when the polarity of the Earth's magnetic field was reversed. At the time, a compass needle would have pointed south instead of north. The last time this happened was 780,000 years ago, so the tools are at least that old.


Analysis of ancient vegetation and pollen in the sediments has revealed that the climate was warm but cooling towards an ice age, which points to two possible times in history, around 840,000 years ago, or 950,000 years ago. Both dates are consistent with the fossilised remains of animals recovered from the same site.


"Britain was getting cooler and going into an ice age, but these early humans were hanging in there. They may have been the remnants of an ancient population that either died out or migrated back across the land bridge to a warmer climate," said Stringer.



Huge hoard of Roman coins found on Somerset farm

Maev Kennedy, guardian.co.uk,

Thursday 8 July 2010 15.50 BST


The largest single hoard of Roman coins ever found in Britain has been unearthed on a farm near Frome in Somerset.


A total of 52,500 bronze and silver coins dating from the 3rd century AD – including the largest ever found set of coins minted by the self proclaimed emperor Carausius, who lasted seven years before he was murdered by his finance minister – were found by Dave Crisp, a hobby metal detectorist from Devizes, Wiltshire.


Crisp first dug up a fingernail-sized bronze coin only 30cm below the surface. Even though he had never found a hoard before, when he had turned up a dozen coins he stopped digging and called in the experts, who uncovered a pot bellied pottery jar stuffed with the extraordinary collection, all dating from 253 to 293 AD – the year of Carausius's death.


Just giving them a preliminary wash, to prevent them from sticking together in a corroded mass as the soil dried out, took conservation staff at the British Museum a month, and compiling the first rough catalogue took a further three months.


How they got into the field remains a mystery, but archaeologists believe they must represent the life savings of an entire community – possibly a votive offering to the gods. A Roman road runs nearby, but no trace of a villa, settlement or cemetery has been found.


Roger Bland, a coins expert at the British Museum, said: "The whole hoard weighs 160 kilos, more than two overweight people, and it wouldn't have been at all easy to recover the coins from the ground. The only way would have been the way the archaeologists had to get them out, by smashing the pot that held them and scooping them out.


"No one individual could possibly have carried them to the field in the pot, it must have been buried first and then filled up."


Bland, who heads the Portable Antiquities service which encourages metal detectorists to report all finds, said the hoard had already absorbed more than 1,000 hours of work. He admitted his first stunned reaction when he saw the coins in the ground in April, was "oh my god, how the hell are we going to deal with this? Now I think it will see me out, the research will keep me going until my retirement."


"This find is going to make us rethink the nature of such hoards," he said. "The traditional thinking was that they represent wealth hidden in times of trouble and invasion – the Saxons were coming, the Irish were invading as always – but that doesn't match these dates."


The archaeologists praised Crisp for calling them in immediately, allowing the context of the find to be recorded meticulously. When a coroner's inquest is held later this month in Somerset, the coins are likely to be declared treasure, which must by law be reported. Somerset county museum hopes to acquire the hoard, which could be worth up to £1m, with the blessing of the British Museum.



'Biggest canal ever built by Romans' discovered

One of the biggest canals ever built by the Romans in an ancient port as important as Carthage or Alexandria has been discovered by British archaeologists.

By Nick Squires in Rome

Published: 8:17PM BST 11 Jul 2010



Scholars discovered the 100-yard-wide (90-metre-wide) canal at Portus, the ancient maritime port through which goods from all over the Empire were shipped to Rome for more than 400 years.

The archaeologists, from the universities of Cambridge and Southampton and the British School at Rome, believe the canal connected Portus, on the coast at the mouth of the Tiber, with the nearby river port of Ostia, two miles away.


It would have enabled cargo to be transferred from big ocean-going ships to smaller river vessels and taken up the River Tiber to the docks and warehouses of the imperial capital.

Until now, it was thought that goods took a more circuitous overland route along a Roman road known as the Via Flavia.

"It's absolutely massive," said Simon Keay, the director of the three-year dig at Portus, the most comprehensive ever conducted at the site, which lies close to Rome's Fiumicino airport, 20 miles west of the city.

"We know of other, contemporary canals which were 20-40 metres wide, and even that was big. But this was so big that there seems to have been an island in the middle of it, and there was a bridge that crossed it. It was unknown until now."

The subterranean outline of the canal was found during a survey by Prof Martin Millett, of Cambridge University, using geophysical instruments which revealed magnetic anomalies underground.

The dig, which is being carried out in partnership with Italian archaeologists, is shedding light on the extraordinary trading network that the Romans developed throughout the Mediterranean basin, from Spain to Egypt and Asia Minor.

The archeologists have found evidence that trading links with North Africa in particular were far more extensive than previously believed. They have found hundreds of amphorae which were used to transport oil, wine and a pungent fermented fish sauce called garum, to which the Romans were particularly partial, from what is now modern Tunisia and Libya.

Huge quantities of wheat were also imported from what were then the Roman provinces of Africa and Egypt.

"What the recent work has shown is that there was a particular preference for large scale imports of wheat from North Africa from the late 2nd century AD right through to the 5th and maybe 6th centuries," said Prof Keay.

The British team believe that Portus and Ostia would have been home to a large expatriate population of North African trading families and commercial agents, some of whom had their names inscribed on tomb stones.

Portus was the main port of ancient Rome for more than 500 years and provided a conduit for everything from glass, ceramics, marble and slaves to wild animals caught in Africa and shipped to Rome for spectacles in the Colosseum.

Work on the massive infrastructure project began under the emperor Claudius.

It was inaugurated by Nero and later greatly enlarged by Trajan.

The British team, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, have uncovered the remains of a large Roman warehouse, a building identified as an imperial palace and a small amphitheatre which may have been used for gladiatorial fights, wild beast baiting and even mock sea battles for the private entertainment of emperors such as Trajan and Hadrian.

They also unearthed a dozen human skeletons and a 2nd or 3rd century white marble head of a bearded man which they believe may represent Ulysses.

Much less is known about Portus than neighbouring Ostia, and archaeologists hope that there are many discoveries waiting to be unearthed which could augment the understanding of ancient Rome's sophisticated trading network.

They expect Portus, which had to be abandoned after it began to silt up in the 6th century, to eventually rank alongside some of the world's best-known ancient cities. "Portus must be one of the most important archaeological sites in the world," said Prof Keay. "The great thing about Portus is that most of it has been preserved and there is much more to learn about the important role it played in Rome's success."




Analysis by Rossella Lorenzi

Thu Jul 8, 2010 12:16 PM ET


Egyptian archaeologists unveiled on Thursday two rock-hewn painted tombs belonging to a man who had a supervising role in the construction of pyramids -- and his son.


It's considered among the most distinguished Old Kingdom tombs.


Dating from around 4,300 years old, the burials feature vividly colored wall paintings -- as fresh as if they were just painted. They were found in the ancient necropolis of Saqqara near Cairo by an Egyptian team working in the area since 1986.


Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and the leader of the excavation, said that the tombs belonged to a father, Shendwa, and his son, Khonsu.


Consisting of a false door with paintings depicting scenes of the deceased seated before an offering table, Shendwa’s tomb featured inscriptions with the different titles of the tomb’s owner.


According to the inscriptions, Shendwa was a top governmental official during the Sixth Dynasty (2374-2191 B.C.). He was the head of the royal scribes and the supervisor of the missions managing the materials used for pyramid construction.


Beneath the false door, 20 meters below the ground level, the archaeologists found the burial chamber.


“When Dr. Hawass descended into the tomb he realized that it was intact and had not previously been plundered by tomb robbers. Unfortunately Shendwa’s wooden sarcophagus had disintegrated due to humidity and erosion,” Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities said in a statement.


In the burial chamber, Hawass found a collection of limestone jars which included five offering vessels carved in the shape of a duck.


“The bones of the ducks were still intact,” said Hawass.


The most important object found in the burial chamber was a 30-centimeter-high limestone obelisk.


“This obelisk is a symbol of worshiping the sun god Re,” said Hawass, adding that during the Old Kingdom, a period also known as the age of pyramids, the Egyptians used to erect small obelisks in front of their tombs.


Next to Shendwa’s tomb, the archaeologists found the burial of his son Khonsu. Beautifully painted, it also featured a false door inscribed with Khonsu’s titles.


“It appears that Khonsu inherited the same titles as his father,” Hawass said.


The tomb also contained an offering table and a stone lintel engraved with 6th Dynasty symbols.


Above the false door, there was was a brightly colored relief showing of the deceased Khonsu in different poses, Hawass said.


The tombs lie in an area known as“Gisr El-Mudir,” west of Saqqara's famous pyramid, the Step Pyramid of King Djoser. According to the archaeologists, the discovery of the two tombs could lead to unearthing a vast cemetery in the area.



Egypt: Colourful ancient tombs unearthed

Cairo, 7 July (AKI)


A team of archaeologists has discovered two colourful tombs, believed to be around 4,300 years old, at the ancient necropolis of Saqqara, south of Cairo, Egyptian culture minister Farouq Hosni said on Wednesday.


Both tombs, found west of the Step Pyramid of Djoser in the Giza area, are carved into rocks and and date from the 6th Dynasty (2,374-2,191 BC), the head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities Zahi Hawass said.


The tombs belong to Shendwa, a top government official and head of the royal scribes, and his son, Khonsu, who inherited the same titles as his father, according to Hawass.


Shendwa's tomb has a beautiful false door depicting him sitting in front of a table of sacrifices, signifying that he held important positions during that period, Hawass said.


The tomb's burial shaft is located directly beneath the false door, and Shendwa's wooden coffin was buried in a 20 meter-deep well that had prevented thieves getting in.


Shendwas’s wooden sarcophagus had disintegrated due to humidity and erosion. Beside the sarcophagus, excavators found limestone jars including five offering vessels carved in the shape of a duck.


Upon opening the vessels, the bones of the ducks were still intact, Hawass said.


Excavators also found a painted relief and a 30 cm tall obelisk made of limestone inside the burial shaft.


“This obelisk symbolises the worship of the sun god Re,” said Hawass.


Hidden below another false door, archaeologists also found the tomb of Khonsu, who inherited his father's titles. The tomb also contained a sacrifice table and stone lintel engraved with 6th Dynasty symbols.


Above the false door to Khonsu's tomb was a brightly coloured relief of the deceased in different poses, Hawass said.


The Egyptian team has been excavating at the site since 1986.



Ancient tomb site uncovered



Archaeologists working at a site in Ha Noi's Dong Anh District have stumbled across 11 tombs dating back to the Phung Nguyen culture, days before they were about to wind up the dig.

The Phung Nguyen remains, the best-preserved of any found in and around the city, date back about 4,000 years, archaeologists from the Viet Nam Archaeology Institute said.

The tombs were discovered 1.5m below ground.

"All the tombs are of people who were living during the Phung Nguyen civilisation, date back 3,500 to 4,000 years," said Lai Van Toi, PhD, who is in charge of excavating the site.

One of the tombs, provisionally called number nine, contained the well-preserved remains of a woman aged between 35-40, Nguyen Laân Cuong, deputy general secretary of the Viet Nam Archaeologists Association told Viet Nam News.

The woman was about 1.55m tall and was buried face up, with her arms lying by her sides and her head bent towards her left shoulder, Cuong said.

Her skull was a long ovoid shape, and her eye sockets were relatively low in her face. She also had a large nose.

Typical of the aristocracy of the Phung Nguyen culture in Xom Ren in the northern province of Phu Tho, her front-teeth had been removed, as was the case with the other skeletons unearthed. Skeletons dating from the Phung Nguyen culture found in Dong Dau in the northern province of Vinh Phuc, Hang To in Son La and Man Bac in Ninh Binh were also found to be missing their front teeth.

The custom was popular among the ancient peoples of south China, Japan and Oceanaria.

Some ceramic objects were found on the woman's left thigh and the left side of her hip. Archaeologists also found traces of red dust on her left knee bone, as has been seen in other ancient tombs.

The Dinh Trang site has been excavated seven times. During the last excavation, archaeologists found a total of 11 tombs, eight of which contained skeletons and teeth mostly of children.

Archaeologists said further research would be conducted on the tombs to learn more about the Phung Nguyen culture and the Dong Son civilisation, which dates back 2,000-3,000 years and existed in today Phu Tho, Yen Bai, Hoa Binh, Ha Noi, and the central provinces of Thanh Hoa, Nghe An and Ha Tinh. — VNS



Medieval castle uncovered on Samsø

Discovery on Kattegat island provides missing historical link

FRIDAY, 09 JULY 2010 13:56



When archaeologists from the National Museum discovered the foundations of a small building at Bispegård on the island of Samsø, they did not realise initially that they had uncovered the remains of a castle that had belonged to a medieval king.


The discovery of the castle of King Erik Menved, who reigned between 1287 and 1319, helps to fill in a hundred-year gap in the island’s history, according to Nils Engberg, head of the National Museum, and the person who headed the dig.


Speaking to national broadcaster DR, he said that there were few written sources from that period of Danish history. ‘The find is a very significant one for the history of Samsø and it is by far the biggest find we have made during our three years working here,’ he added.


When the archaeologists uncovered foundations measuring 20 metres square, they thought that it belonged to a minor building. But as they continued the dig they realised that the initial find was just a small part of a larger complex.


The researchers dated the find to 1290, and concluded that the castle was a replacement for a previous fortress on the island that was destroyed around 1289.


Engberg believes that the castle was abandoned by the king’s men in 1420, and hopes to uncover more of its secrets as the dig continues.



Historians locate King Arthur's Round Table

Historians claim to have finally located the site of King Arthur’s Round Table – and believe it could have seated 1,000 people.

By Martin Evans

Published: 11:46AM BST 11 Jul 2010


Researchers exploring the legend of Britain’s most famous Knight believe his stronghold of Camelot was built on the site of a recently discovered Roman amphitheatre in Chester.

Legend has it that his Knights would gather before battle at a round table where they would receive instructions from their King.


But rather than it being a piece of furniture, historians believe it would have been a vast wood and stone structure which would have allowed more than 1,000 of his followers to gather.

Historians believe regional noblemen would have sat in the front row of a circular meeting place, with lower ranked subjects on stone benches grouped around the outside.

They claim rather than Camelot being a purpose built castle, it would have been housed in a structure already built and left over by the Romans.

Camelot historian Chris Gidlow said: “The first accounts of the Round Table show that it was nothing like a dining table but was a venue for upwards of 1,000 people at a time.

“We know that one of Arthur’s two main battles was fought at a town referred to as the City of Legions. There were only two places with this title. One was St Albans but the location of the other has remained a mystery.”

The recent discovery of an amphitheatre with an execution stone and wooden memorial to Christian martyrs, has led researchers to conclude that the other location is Chester.

Mr Gidlow said: “In the 6th Century, a monk named Gildas, who wrote the earliest account of Arthur’s life, referred to both the City of Legions and to a martyr’s shrine within it. That is the clincher. The discovery of the shrine within the amphitheatre means that Chester was the site of Arthur’s court and his legendary Round Table.”



Top 10 clues to the real King Arthur

By Christopher Gidlow

Monday, 12 July 2010


The King Arthur we know is one of romance, ephemera and myth. But is he real? Arthur has been in and out of fashion more than denim: one year his veracity is being argued by every archaeologist in Britain, the next he's ignored or derided. In Revealing King Arthur: Swords, Stones and Digging for Camelot, Christopher Gidlow shows how archaeologists over the last 50 years have interpreted the evidence from Dark Age Britain. At first they were happy to link their discoveries to legendary names. Then came a backlash, when Arthurian links were ignored or derided. Now, new discoveries have raised again the possibility of a real King Arthur. He recalls ten sites that suggest Arthur was much more than an old wives' tale.


1. Tintagel


The legendary site of King Arthur’s conception is Tintagel Castle. Excavations demonstrated that, as the legends said, this was a fortified home of the ruler of Cornwall in about 500AD. The largest fortified site of the ‘Arthurian’ period, it contained unprecedented remains of luxury goods from the Eastern Roman Empire. In 1998, a slate engraved with the name ‘Artognou’ and other names from the legends was discovered there.


2. The London Basilica


The earliest historical accounts of Arthur see him as a leader of the kings of the Britons against the invading Saxons. Medieval legends showed him uniting them by a combination of force and magical displays. Most famous is his drawing the sword from the stone, "outside the greatest church of London, whether it were Paul's or not", writes Sir Thomas Malory. In fact the largest Church in Roman London discovered, probably the seat of its Bishop, was at Tower Hill. Christianity was an important part of British identity, versus Saxon paganism.


3. Silchester


Said to be the site of King Arthur’s coronation, the Roman town of Silchester was heavily fortified in the Arthurian period. Road blocks were set up on approach roads, and the perimeter was made more defensible. Resistance to the Saxons was so successful, Silchester never became a Saxon town. Could there be a connection between Arthur’s sword, Excalibur and the late Roman name for Silchester, Calleba?


4. South Cadbury Castle


There are numerous contenders for the site of Arthur’s Camelot, with Colchester (Camulodunum) probably the forerunner. However, Henry VIII’s librarian, John Leland, identified the Iron Age hill fort of South Cadbury as the original Camelot. This inspired the famous Cadbury/Camelot excavations by Leslie Alcock in the 1960s which showed it had been heavily refortified in the 5th/6th century. Further work revealed it as one of the centres of a West Country kingdom characterised by large-scale defensive works like the Wansdyke from Bath to the Savernake Forest. This so impressed invading Saxons they attributed it to the god Woden.


5. Wroxeter


Was Arthur a Celtic warrior, harking back to the warlike days of his ancestors? Other writers see him as a ‘last of the Romans’, struggling to uphold the values of civilisation against a barbarian storm. Some sources describe him as a Roman general, others even as ‘Emperor’. Dramatic evidence of sub-Roman culture was discovered by Philip Barker in the 1960s at Wroxeter. Wooden buildings tried to keep up the functions of the forum as well as the defences. Tradition put the home of his wife, Queen Guinevere, at nearby Old Oswestry. Wroxeter, too, never became a Saxon town.


6. Chester Amphitheatre


One of Arthur’s celebrated '12 battles' against the Saxons was fought at the City of the Legion, the name given to Chester in the Dark Ages. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of a


Dark Age battle at nearby Heronbridge, and recent excavations show the amphitheatre was fortified in the period, with a shrine to a Christian martyr at its centre. Is it a coincidence Arthur’s Round Table was originally described as a very large structure, seating 1,600 of his warriors?


7. Birdoswald


A brief 10th century account records the death of Arthur and Medraut at the battle of Camlann. This was spun out by later writers into a tragic encounter between Arthur and his rebellious son Mordred. Many scholars believe Camlann was ‘Camboglanna’, a now-vanished fort on Hadrian’s Wall. The next fort, Birdoswald, was excavated in 1987- 92. With the end of Roman rule in the 5th century, the local garrison commander had set himself up as a tribal-style warlord. A Celtic feasting hall was added to the military buildings. Other forts along the wall were similarly refortified – the work of King Arthur and a potential power base for rebellious lieutenants?


8. Slaughterbridge


Medieval writers opted for a West Country site for Arthur’s last battle. Slaughterbridge on the River Camel has proved popular, for obvious reasons. There are numerous reports of finds of Dark Age weaponry from the site. It is now the location for an ongoing archaeological project intended to get a clearer picture of life in the Dark Ages there, and near neighbouring Tintagel. A 6th century memorial stone, inscribed in Latin and Irish Ogham, is still visible here, bearing an enigmatic inscription, probably to a Romano-British warrior named Latinus.


9. Glastonbury Tor


Excavations by Philip Rahtz in the 60s showed someone had been living on top of Glastonbury Tor in the Arthurian period. But who? Medieval legends provided several candidates. King Meluas of the Summer Country had abducted Queen Guinevere to his castle at Glastonbury, a story which formed the basis of romances about her rescue by Sir Lancelot. The demonic Gwynn ap Nudd, one of Arthur’s legendary warriors, was said to have been banished from his Palace on the Tor by St Collen. Gerald of Wales reported that Arthur’s kinswoman, Morgan, had owned land near the abbey and arranged for his burial there. He berated writers who made her the fabulous enchantress 'Morgan le Fay'.


10. King Arthur’s burial at Glastonbury


In 1191 the monks of Glastonbury Abbey uncovered the body of a gigantic man. Wounded several times in the head, he had succumbed to one last fatal blow. The bones of his wife, along with a tress of her beautiful golden hair, shared his oak coffin. Ralegh Radford recovered the site in 1962, showing how two slab-lined tombs of the very earliest stratum of the ancient church had indeed been disturbed at the time. The monks displayed an ancient lead cross found with the burial, inscribed ‘Here lies buried the famous king Arthur with Guinevere his second wife, in the Isle of Avalon’. Where the cross and bones are now, nobody knows.



Mystery of 17th-century bowls found by archaeologists in London dump

Maev Kennedy


Monday 12 July 2010 14.12 BST


17th century tin-glazed bowls found at Borough Market, south London. Photograph: Museum of London

Archaeologists are puzzling over why three handsome 17th-century bowls, one celebrating the marriage in 1674 of the original owner, ended up dumped in a rubbish pit in a Southwark back garden.


The bowls, which go on display today at the Museum of London after months of conservation work piecing them together, are rare survivals from a ceramics works only a few hundred yards away, beside Southwark cathedral. Each is a unique piece, demonstrating the varying ambitions and skills of the pottery painters of the day. One is an Islamic-inspired tulip design; another, marking the marriage of NT to ET in 1674, imitates Chinese porcelain; and the last so ineptly attempts a blue and white Dutch painting that museum staff have named it "boy with colander on head tormenting meerkat with stick".


They were all made for show, not for practical use – beneath the fancy painted fronts, the original clay colour shows through the thin glaze on the backs – giving a striking insight into the kind of display a fairly modest craft worker's home might boast. This makes it more puzzling that they were all apparently dumped at the same time, not long after they were made.


"Did they go out of fashion?" Roy Stephenson, head of the archaeological collections at the museum, wondered. "Was there a kitchen disaster when somebody tipped the Welsh dresser over on top of themself, did it all go horribly wrong for them and did they get evicted – or did ET go off and leave NT so he didn't want the marriage bowl around as a reminder any longer?"


The most beautiful is also the best preserved, the tulip bowl, but the marriage bowl provides the clue to the original owners. The crest in the centre – "three beasts with horns waiting to be turned into handbags" says Stephenson – is that of the Leather Seller's Company. The guild's 17th century archives survive, and record that one Nathaniel Townsend was admitted to the company in 1673. Stephenson believes it may be even more of a family affair, as a G Townsend is recorded as working for the Southwark pottery at the same date: he is convinced it must be a relative, and that Townsend got "mate's rates" when he commissioned the handsome bowl.


The bowls were excavated from a site beside Borough Market, funded by Network Rail as part of its Thameslink construction of a second rail viaduct through the densely packed streets. Southwark in the 17th century was a rowdy place, famous for taverns, bear baiting, theatres and brothels. The bowls turned up conveniently within a stone's throw of the present Wheatsheaf pub, the watering hole for the site archaeologists.